Thinking about climate means becoming human for the first time

Part three of a three-part series on how philosophy contends with our possible annihilation.

Thinking about climate means becoming human for the first time

Part three of a three-part series on how philosophy contends with our possible annihilation.

Parts one and two of this series have mainly discussed climate change in the way that it presents itself to those of us in the global north: A looming threat, a disaster which, yes, has visible portents (the weirding of the weather, those too-intense winters and raging, blazing summers; those yearly, “once-in-a-century” storms and sudden heatwaves in the middle of February), but which is not by any means fully present to us yet. We experience climate change primarily insofar as it haunts us, is felt spookily as a spectre. Climate change still has enough plausible deniability for the White House to feel able to establish a special panel essentially tasked with finding reasons not to act on it.

But this is by no means the only, or even the dominant, experience of climate change worldwide. Climate change is already ravaging the global south, having been blamed, for instance, for exacerbating conflicts in Darfur, Yemen, and Syria. Climate change is already working to parch and to drown and to starve and to displace — and this is having a direct effect on “our” own politics as well.

It has become common to complain of a lack of political response to climate change — the U.S. establishment's callous inaction on the Green New Deal; the fact the U.K. House of Commons held its first debate on climate change in two years at the end of February and hardly anyone came. But what if there already is a political response to climate change — and it's the anti-migrant policies being enacted by the political right? I mentioned “eco-fascism” in the last piece — perhaps, in the “lifeboat ethics” currently being enacted on the U.S. border with Mexico, and on the E.U'.s border with the Mediterranean, it is already here.

In his 1940 essay “On the Concept of History,” the philosopher Walter Benjamin writes in relation to (non-eco) fascism that “The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the 20th century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge — unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.” Often, when confronted with great horror, our instinct is to think that we are living through a “state of emergency,” some terrible exception to an otherwise unbroken arc of progress. But if we were to focus on the experience of history's losers, not its victors — “the tradition of the oppressed” — then we would learn that “the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.”

It is at this point in his essay that Benjamin introduces the image of the “angel of history,” based on a genuine Paul Klee monoprint that he owned. “Where a chain of events appears before us,” the angel of history — eyes wide, mouth open, wings spread, face “turned towards the past” — “sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The disaster is already here: somewhere, for someone at least, it has always been with us. What is happening now might best be understood as an intensification. It will only be over, as Theodor Adorno points out in his 1962 lecture on “Progress” — a piece very much written after and in the light of Benjamin's history essay — when we are all “able to breathe a sigh of relief.”

Angelus Novus

Angelus Novus

We are used to conceiving of climate change as a manifestation somehow of the “Anthropocene,” the geological epoch in which human activity has come to dominate the Earth. But is this really fair? After all, it's not humanity as a whole which is responsible for climate change. The phenomenon might well be man-made, but it seems ridiculous to suggest that we're all doing it.

Capitalism wants to atomize and individualize; it only wants us to exercise agency as consumers, it wants to make the matter of causing or preventing climate change a matter of individual consumer choice. But realistically, the number of human individuals with any sort of actual intentional control over climate change is very small. One report suggests that just 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of global emissions since 1988. Obviously these companies do not exist in a vacuum, and if they went away overnight there would still exist needs that they fulfill. But the basic theory here — that they're doing it and we're not — would at least go some way to explain why most of us, quite despite the “man-made” nature of climate change, feel utterly powerless to do anything about it.

As I have insisted throughout this series, climate change is a powerful reminder that we need to think better, that we need to learn to think in human terms. But what does this mean? There is a case to be made that “humanity,” properly speaking, is something that has yet to exist.

In his lectures on Problems of Moral Philosophy, Adorno relays an anecdote in which the founders of a society called the Humanist Union had invited him to become a member. “I replied that I might possibly be willing to join if your club had been called an inhuman union, but I could not join one that calls itself ‘humanist.’” “I am reluctant to use the term ‘humanity,’” Adorno explains, “since it is one of the expressions that reify and hence falsify crucial issues merely by speaking of them.” In “Progress,” Adorno writes that “no progress is to be assumed that would imply that humanity in general already existed and therefore could progress. Rather progress would be the very establishment of humanity in the first place, whose prospect opens up in the face of its extinction.”

In their 1846 work The German Ideology, Marx and Engels tell us that human beings first begin to distinguish themselves from their “lower” animal cousins “as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organization.” All animals, of course, draw from their environment the things they need to survive (or, well, don't, but then they will die). But when we human animals obtain the things we need, something unusual happens. “The satisfaction of the first need,” Marx and Engels observe, “leads to new needs.”

For human beings, no need is ever satisfied simply — we might satisfy our hunger by hunting, but then we've gained a need for tools like spears; might satisfy it instead by growing vegetables, but then we've gained a need for land. Over time, our various attempts to satisfy our needs lead to more and more specialized occupations, an ever more complicated web of needs (the need to have access to the internet, for example, would have been completely alien 30 years ago, but now seems almost as basic as water; the way our institutions now work, not being able to access to the internet could prove just as detrimental to life). “This production of new needs,” Marx and Engels tell us, “is the first historical act.” History, on their view, is manifested by and through our inability to feel comfortable in our own surroundings, in our failure to exist in what other species have: a habitat.

There is a case to be made that “humanity,” properly speaking, is something that has yet to exist.

But an animal out of its habitat is always a diminished version of itself: I often think of a line from a Louis Theroux documentary about a big cat sanctuary, where the keeper is welcoming a new tiger cub into the world. “Well, except he's not a tiger,” the conservationist says (or words to that effect). “He'll never get to be a tiger. He’ll have to spend his whole life in a zoo.” Even if, as an adult, they put this new cat in a tropical forest, he would have no idea what to do there; he would be unable to do the things that otherwise “come naturally” to tigers, that make it possible for them to survive.

Having never found our true habitat, the surroundings in which we could all live happily and securely without inadvertently producing new needs (without inadvertently attempting to satisfy them through an economic system that is conspiring to make the whole planet uninhabitable), we alleged human animals have never achieved anything more than the pale semblance of our “real” species life. For Marx and Engels, such a thing would only be possible under communism, with which all class antagonisms will be overcome and the “riddle of history” can be solved.

If this last line ends up seeming a bit too much like magical thinking, a post-revolutionary leap into utopia, the general framework that Marx and Engels establish in The German Ideology nevertheless points in an important direction. What might “thinking in human terms” really, usefully, mean? Perhaps: thinking, through existing inhumanity and the inhumanities of the past, towards establishing the conditions, political and economic, in which human life might take place for the first time. If we must now do this in the face of our looming extinction, well: that only makes the task more urgent.

“The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in the face of despair,” Adorno tells us, “is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption... Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity or violence, entirely from felt contact with its objects — this alone is the task of thought. It is the simplest of all things, because the situation calls imperatively for such knowledge... But it is also the utterly impossible thing, because it presupposes a standpoint removed, even though by a hair’s breadth, from the scope of existence.”

Adorno provides us with a positive prescription, but also a problem: if we are trapped within the finite perspective of our species as it in fact exists, do really we have any way of thinking our way out?

I opened this series by describing Alan Butler's installation “On Exactitude in Science” — perhaps we should close it by considering a different version. Butler's remake of Koyaanisqatsi presents us with a version of our own reality which is somehow diminished, a mere impression of our lives somehow less than the ones we in fact live. But what if we imagined instead that he had made a copy more real, more alive than the original, that compensates for all our real existence's flaws? What if instead of a digital puppet show, a life with nothing in it, he had given us an image of a life in which our happiness no longer had to be tempered by melancholy, in which our wealth was genuinely held in common, not built on the sufferings of the poor? A world alive with meaning, but not in the way that it is now, life feverishly summoning its own end.

Having imagined it, it doesn't matter whether this film is real. This image can function as a critical device. Two lives: on the left screen, our own lives, almost-human. On the right, that same life, lived in a “really” human way. Often, in Butler’s installation, the difference between the two images seems not only intentional but causal: in Koyaanisqatsi, the images of assembly lines (for example) appear differently to their GTA equivalent because there is so clearly a different process behind the image, animating it. In our imagined film, what would need to be behind the image on the right, for it to appear as we might think it should? What processes — political, economic, ethical — might make it possible?

What if we were to ask this question of everything we do? Could it help us to produce a new standard to hold ourselves to? Could it help us to survey the grounds of our lives, in the interests of producing a new map?

The real meaning of the Anthropocene: a genuinely human era, in which we are never afflicted by violence, by want, or by the leering prospect of the end times, ever again.


How to think against the apocalypse

Part two in a three-part series on how philosophy contends with our possible annihilation.
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Tom Whyman, a contributing writer at The Outline, is a writer and philosopher from the UK.